Perform the Marshmallow Challenge
Team-building activities usually take up a lot of time and/or a considerable disbursement of money.
- The Marshmallow Challenge is a quick team-building activity (it takes 30-45 minutes) that will cost you no money to complete. In spite of its simplicity, its participants have a lot of fun and it's quite challenging as well.
- This is how it works: teams have 18 minutes to build the tallest free-standing structure, using only 20 sticks of spaghetti, one marshmallow, one yard of string and one yard of tape.
- Introduced by Peter Skillman, it was originally used as a tool for beginners in design thinking to practice prototyping in testing, but the challenge can be useful for everybody. The key of the challenge is that it forces people to collaborate very quickly. It is useful to engage your employees and create alignment in your teams.
- Consider running this challenge to kickstart a meeting, get a team into a creative state of mind, or simply as a fun activity to help peers get to know each other.
Schedule the meeting
You will need 30 to 45 minutes on average to run the challenge.
Assemble teams of 3-4
Make sure that each team has a small table. Teams are reduced to 3-4 people but there isn't a limit on the number of participants that take part in the challenge.
Provide the material to each team
Each team will need:
- 20 sticks of uncooked spaghetti
- 1 yard of masking tape (or just provide one masking tape for each team)
- 1 yard of string
- 1 marshmallow (standard size)
- Scissors (to cut the string)
Consider putting these in a paper bag for each team, so that they cannot see what is inside and you maximize the element of surprise.
You will also need:
- Measuring tape: you need it to measure the height of the structures after the challenge is over.
- Countdown app: the challenge must last 18 minutes. Ideally, you would display the countdown time on a projector so that everyone can keep track of the time they have left.
Provide clear instructions
- Build the tallest free-standing structure: the team that wins the challenge is the one that has constructed the tallest structure, measured from the top of the table to the top of the marshmallow.
- The whole marshmallow has to be on top: you cannot cut or eat part of the marshmallow.
- You don't have to use all of the material provided: you're free to use as much as you want.
- You are free to cut the spaghetti, string or tape however you want.
- After the 18 minutes are over, teams cannot hold their structures, as they have to be free-standing.
Once the challenge is over, identify the winners
Measure the standing structures and identify the winning team. You can offer a prize of your choice to the winning team (which you can announce beforehand), and they should receive a standing ovation from everyone.
Wrap it up with a discussion on what you've learned from the Marshmallow Challenge
- What was the hardest part of the challenge? What have you learned from it?
- What would you do differently if you could do the challenge again?
- The most common mistake teams with unsuccessful structures make is spending too much time planning and not enough time testing or not testing at all. Thus, if their structure fails, they don't have enough time to make the necessary changes.
- This is why kindergarten kids do better than business students at the challenge: they spend more time playing and prototyping than planning. Take-home message: prototyping is crucial.
- The marshmallow is a metaphor for the hidden assumptions of a project: people tend to put the marshmallow on top of the structure at the very end because they assume its lighter than it really is, compared to the spaghetti sticks. But then, they realize it's heavier than they thought. The metaphor is that we need to identify the assumptions in our project (the customer needs, the cost of the product, the duration of the service) and test them frequently, starting as soon as possible. This is the process that will lead to effective innovation.